Human nature reveals its dark side on the internet
The problem with social media isn't that victims are abused, but that it's not surprising anymore when they are
Did you know that Francoise Hollande blamed the recent terrorist attacks in Paris on the Illuminati, the shadowy group of Jews and Freemasons which is rumoured to be working behind the scenes to create a New World Order?
The French President actually said so in front of millions of viewers during a televised address, but it wasn't until someone using a fake name posted a video on YouTube that the significance of the phrase "ces illumines", which others had interpreted to be a synonym for "fanatics" or "zealots", became apparent.
Quite why the Illuminati would want to commit an atrocity in Paris wasn't clear. Some said it was to prepare France for martial law in advance of an impending worldwide banking collapse. Others that it was done to distract attention from the sexual abuse allegations against Prince Andrew. That's assuming, of course, that the attacks even happened at all. Everyone knows by now that Ahmed Merabet, the policeman who allegedly died after being shot on the ground by the terrorist brothers, isn't really dead at all. The whole thing was faked.
Welcome to the strange world of the conspiracy theorist, a world which has been in overdrive since the Paris attacks. It doesn't matter how often the rumours are contradicted with facts, still they gather momentum; and the same pattern now kicks in after every tragic event.
Malaysia Flight MH370, which self-appointed experts on the internet just "know" was secretly flown to a US base in Diego Garcia. The Boston bombings. September 11, naturally, the mothership of all conspiracy theories.
There's no sense arguing with these people, because they are the "illumines", the enlightened ones, and the rest of us are just "shills" and "sheeple", as they are wont to describe anyone who points out that they're disseminating nonsense. Besides, the mainstream media is "in on it" too, because of course the first thing the Illuminati would do when organising a so-called "false flag" attack is to involve as many people as possible in the lie, in order that there's a maximum chance of the truth leaking out. Particularly journalists, who are a notoriously tight-lipped bunch of people, not prone to gossip and indiscretion at all. No siree.
The conspiracies work because they're ingenious, like all the best fictions, and because they tap into what is becoming the defining characteristic of the age, which is the widespread and growing distrust of all traditional authority. Some of that is entirely legitimate and healthy; much more of it is fuelled by paranoia and malignant politics, and it spreads more quickly than ever before because of the internet, where literally anything can be, and is, said.
There are no checks and balances. Nothing to distinguish between dross and gold. As soon as one insidious fantasy is dismantled, another one rises to take its place.
To hear such thoughtless gibberish must be incredibly hurtful to the families of those who have died, but that's another feature of the internet. Nothing that happens on it ever feels quite real, so there's no need to temper one's behaviour in order to consider the feelings of others.
Jordi Mir, the man who took the footage of the policeman being shot on the pavement in Paris, admitted as much this week. "I had to speak to someone," Mir said of his decision to upload the video. "I take a photo - a cat - and I put it on Facebook. It was the same stupid reflex."
That he simply didn't think about what he was doing is central to understanding how the internet is changing the ways in which we treat one another. Once there was a delay between thought and publication. Now it's an instantaneous process, which is wonderfully liberating, but can be dangerous too.
In the past, anyone who wanted to insult the family of a dead child would have had to go to the trouble of finding his parents' address, writing a letter, buying a stamp and going to the post box, or at least tracking down their telephone number and ringing it. There were plenty of opportunities to have second thoughts, or even merely to lose one's nerve to do such a horrible thing. Now, just send them a tweet.
That's what happened to the family of two-year-old Robert Kelly, who died suddenly of a suspected viral infection last weekend in Limerick. They were targeted on social media by people dubbing them "scumbags", presumably because the child's father is related to former independent councillor Michael Kelly, who, before his death in 2004, was "known to gardai", as they say. It takes some reserves of heartlessness to do that to a grieving family, but the real tragedy is that it's not even surprising anymore.
As Ryan Tubridy observed on radio last week, this now routinely happens to anyone who catches the public eye.
When she came out initially against the staging in Dublin of a particular martial arts event, Senator Catherine Noone found herself on the receiving end of tweets calling for her to be "anally raped" for expressing her views. Likewise, it's now more than three months since Mairia Cahill went public with her story of being subjected to a republican "kangaroo court" after she was allegedly raped by a senior IRA member, and she is still being cruelly trolled on a daily basis by the same pathetic specimens of humanity on Twitter.
Among the messages she has recently had to endure are ones calling her a "filthy lying scumbucket", a "bunny boiler", "white trash", and even ones claiming that her rapist was her "bit of rough" and that she liked what he did to her.
These messages come mainly from people hiding behind anonymous accounts, but incredibly, some of these people who are tweeting and retweeting these messages are individuals using their own names. Social media being what it is, it's not even possible to confront these bullies without either drawing more poison from them or else risking them themselves becoming the target of abuse from others who would, however understandably, wish to express their disapproval of such behaviour. A concern not to be responsible for drawing the same wickedness on them that they are visiting on others means that one is forced to simply let them get on with it.
One would think their friends or colleagues would have a quiet word and ask what the hell they're doing. What does it matter if they don't believe Mairia's story? Is it OK now to throw sexually charged language at vulnerable women online, as long as one has taken an irrational, obsessive dislike to them? Are those the new rules?
From television to the phone to the internal combustion engine, every technological innovation has impacted on human behaviour in ways that were not fully understood at the time. We are still in the infancy of the internet and it's unclear how much of an effect it's having on us; but, for all its incredible potential as an enabler of free communication, it's ridiculous to deny that it also allows the darker side of human nature to be unleashed on a larger stage than ever before.
Never has philosopher Thomas Nagel's definition of morality as being aware of oneself as "one amongst others equally real" felt so fragile.